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28 October 2022

How horror changed modern art

Contemporary artists have long used the genre to react against the terrors of modern Britain – from the 1970s to today.

By Luke Turner

To enter Somerset House’s exhibition “The Horror Show!”, visitors must walk past the giant teeth on the Thames Embankment that lead into the basement galleries, and through a black corridor where Bauhaus’s none-more-goth 1982 single “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” plays. But anyone expecting the ersatz phantasmagoria of Halloween would be disappointed. Instead this exhibition, curated by Claire Catterall and the artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, trawls up and celebrates Britain’s countercultural reactions to the turbulent politics and anxieties of the past 40-ish years.

For a start, it’s refreshing to encounter an exhibition that doesn’t hold up the 1960s as a national high water mark. Instead, this is very much about what emerged in the long hangover of that decade’s failed ideals, both politically and creatively. Looming over it all is Margaret Thatcher – quite literally in the first room, where her grotesque Spitting Image puppet stares blankly up towards Judy Blame’s crown headpiece, but also in how so much of what we are still living in today was shaped by the political and social upheaval she unleashed.

The three sections of the exhibition, Monster, Ghost and Witch, are loosely chronological, dealing respectively with the turmoil of the late Seventies and early Eighties, the dislocations of the turn of the millennium, and the 2008 crash to the present day. But this is not a didactic tour of political art. Artists appear in more than one era, the dates of their work not always in the “correct” period, giving a sense of a culture in a dialogue with itself. Music, performance, fashion, clubbing, film, sound, text and cultural ephemera whirl together with thrilling energy.

The Bromley Contingent , 1978. Photo by Ray Stevenson

Thatcher isn’t the only spectre that haunts the art of these periods. The Aids crisis looms large, via Leigh Bowery’s empty costume and a club-like space rattling to the sounds of Soft Cell’s “Memorabilia” as pictures and footage of queer nightlife of the 1980s and early 1990s are projected on the walls. Derek Jarman’s 76-minute film Blue, his final meditation on art and illness, is screened in full on a loop in its own room, retaining all of its visionary power and quiet anger nearly 30 years on from the filmmaker’s death.

A second haunting comes in the form of the very stuff that our cities are made of. In the Ghost section a wall of images of Rachel Whiteread’s 1993 sculpture House (a concrete cast of a three-story home) next to Cornelia Parker’s Meteorite Lands on the Millennium Dome comments on the huge changes wrought to Britain’s built environment over the past three decades, the urban becoming ever more identikit. I was struck watching Liz Truss’s disastrous Laura Kuenssberg interview from the Tory party conference this month by just how generic the backdrop outside the studio was – dreary glass and panel buildings, chain restaurants. It was Birmingham but could have been anywhere. The corporate homogeneity of contemporary cities is a physical and psychic barrier to the creativity being celebrated in this exhibition – the true horror of modern Britain is often creepily bland.

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These concerns are reflected in Laura Grace Ford’s new work An Undimmed Aura, a room papered with photocopied images of underpasses, derelict edgelands and tower blocks. Ford’s work comments on class and threatened identities amid rapid gentrification, and in her voiceover the architecture becomes animalistic, London disappearing under a “swarm of towers”. She collaborated with Stephen Mallinder, who as part of Cabaret Voltaire captured the sonics of Sheffield’s industrial decline. Like much in this exhibition it brings together the post-punk era and the present day.

A Dream in Green, 2015. Photo by Juno Calypso. Courtesy of the artist

The final Witch collection – supposedly the most contemporary and relevant for our current moment of crisis – lacks the critical bite that makes the rest of the exhibition such a success. There’s a diaphanous artistic statement about “the new witches” “using sex, magic and technology to shape a new reality” as they “dare to dream-forwards to an interconnected world; one that rejects the hubris of entrenched binaries to devise a universe of multiple possibilities”. Tarot is having a fashionable moment, and there are two decks on display here, but this is vogueish, inward-looking escapism, rather than a cauldron bubbling with ideas to make a meaningful impact on the chaos that engulfs us.

Nevertheless, the work itself is visually striking, from Penny Slinger’s fusion of the erotic and sacred, to the uncanny occultism that extends from the writings of Austin Osman Spare through to the music of Coil and Cyclobe, and Serena Korda’s ceramic grotesques. Zadie Xa’s fantastic outfits for her performance Basic Instructions b4 Leaving and Col Self’s Sisterhood Rising (for Fahimeh) pick up a thread where Leigh Bowery left off back in the 1980s. Descending a staircase, “The Horror Show” ends with Tai Shani’s The Neon Hieroglyph, a giant and ghostlike sculpture covered with balloons and trinkets as Gazelle Twin’s rough ambient soundtrack bleeds from speakers around the room. It’s a stunning object, at once beautiful and ominous.

A complex creative relationship with the country you’re from involves both expressing your rage with its failings and your love of it at the same time – a sort of anxious patriotism, a frustration with the way things are and a belief that they could be better. It’s an atmosphere that runs across this exhibition, which feels of these isles, as British as The Hay Wain and Elgar – or, for that matter, well-worn countercultural iconography such as the Clash or the Battle of the Beanfield. “The Horror Show” is anything but grim, nihilistic, downbeat, but exudes a defiant joy, a pride in resistance, a playful celebration of what the people of Britain are capable of when simultaneously saying “fuck you” and keeping the mind wide open.

[See also: Caroline Herschel’s celestial discoveries]

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